For the first couple months of the 2014 season, Will Smith was one of baseball’s best arms out of the bullpen and quickly became Ron Roenicke‘s go-to-guy in high leverage situations. He struck out nearly 30% of batters he faced and boasted a 3.09 ERA in 43.2 innings. He failed to allow an earned run in May (13 IP), diced up lefties and was able to put down righties on a regular basis. His dominance made the news that Zach Duke was signing with the Chicago White Sox a little easier to hear.
But then the calendar turned to July, and Smith’s ERA grew like Pinocchio’s nose. Of the 27 total earned runs Smith allowed last season, he gave up 14 of them in July. Here’s a look at his ERA month-to-month.
Although the months of July and August clearly weren’t friendly to Smith, his peripherals didn’t change all that much, which is why we shouldn’t be worried about his second-half “slump”.
Nothing drastically changed. In the first half of the season, Smith had a 3.11 FIP. In the second half, he had a 3.45 FIP. Different, but not substantially. He actually struck out more and walked less, and his opponent’s batting average and on-base percentage were nearly identical from the first three months. Smith allowed a higher batting average on balls in play, but just by a little, and was still able to keep the ball in the yard. So what contributed to his high ERA?
The biggest problem Smith had was keeping runners from scoring once they got on base.
First half: 78.6 LOB%
Second half: 64.8 LOB%
Once Smith allowed a runner to get on, he couldn’t make them stay put.That’s because Smith almost completely stopped forcing ground balls, and as a result, balls started to take flight which meant more base hits and less outs. Take a look at this:
It’s no wonder his ERA took a climb. He did a heck of a job conjuring ground balls and limiting balls in the air during the first half of the campaign, but completely lost his touch during the last few months of the season. A pitcher with a devastating slider, like Smith (5.1 wSL), will most likely be ineffective if he can’t get the ball on the ground. However, Smith’s second half trend of lack of grounders shouldn’t continue into 2015, as his career ground-ball rate is 42.8%. I expect it to normalize.
Smith was overused in the first half (43.2 IP) and underused in the second half (22 IP), as this was due to Roenicke’s mismanagement of the bullpen. With any luck, Roenicke will make smarter decisions on when to use Smith. A set-up man by committee might be the best option with Smith facing lefties and Jeremy Jeffress getting the ball versus righties, but regardless, there’s really no reason to worry about Smith. He finished the year with a fantastic ERA/FIP/xFIP line (3.70/3.25/3.08) and was worth 0.5 WAR as a middle innings reliever.
Take away the month in which Smith gave up 14 runs in 8.2 innings, and Smith is one of the best relievers in baseball.